World Association of News Publishers

Trevor Ncube: Our intrinsic and universal nature as a watchdog

Trevor Ncube: Our intrinsic and universal nature as a watchdog

Photo Trevor NcubePhoto Trevor NcubeTrevor Ncube is Chairman of Alpha Media Holdings in Zimbabwe and the Executive Deputy Chairman of the Mail & Guardian Media Group in South Africa.  He has received numerous awards for his activities promoting press freedom and in his essay he argues how newspapers, despite changing technology, will continue to hold their status as intrinsic and universal nature as a watchdog.


Predicting the future calls for gazing into the proverbial crystal ball, but in my part of the world, it would be more appropriate to say it calls for throwing the divining bones. Also related to where I come from, the biggest challenge for publishers is to strive to build national and continental traditions in which authorities respect the right to publish. So, let me say that the first bone is literally a bone – it symbolises our intrinsic and universal nature as a watchdog.

But why should this be emphasised above all the fantastic changes that are transforming our industry as it looks to secure its future? Simply because it is our global history as privately-owned newspapers. There is no reason why other media, such as broadcasters, could not have developed the same tradition. But they did not. We’ve made this function so central to our business that no matter what the future will bring, it is our institution that will be at the forefront of scrutinising official ill-doing, governmental double-speak, human rights abuses, and not forgetting corporate sector corruption. To go back in time, can you imagine Teletext breaking the great exposés – Watergate, Willowgate in Zimbabwe, Inkathagate in South Africa? So, roll on smartphones and tablets as devices that disseminate news, yet only those that are linked to our legacies, to our hard-fought role as protectors of the public interest will disseminate the kind of journalism that makes us a fourth estate for future generations.

In other words, for the future we will continue to be the media guys who are a factor in “good governance”. Accordingly, we as newspapers will remain as the media institution to be found at the forefront of defending and advancing press freedom around the world.

It is no accident of course that I use the term “press freedom”, because it was our medium that historically has fought for the right of any media instititution to make information public without constraints. We have done this through WAN-IFRA, and we did it through the Windhoek Declaration of 1991 which was ultimately adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and which then gave birth to the annual commemoration on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day.

In short, it is thanks to us as newspapers that all media benefit from this freedom - where it exists. Most importantly, it is also thanks to us as newspapers that individual citizens and the public interest also benefit accordingly from the right to publish.

With this background, one sure certainty for the future is that we’ll continue to be an indispensable factor for democracy. Despite what the pundits predicted in the early days of the Internet, that medium is not immune from controls, as the case of China shows. And, so while the Internet will continue to grow, it will be our platforms - offline, defiant text on paper, reproduced and distributed at large, sometimes even without a traceable address - that will demonstrate the indefatigable human spirit for freedom of expression.

Audiences of the future will thus continue to expect of us that we are champions of free expression; that we are their protection against secrecy and silence. It is part of our unique selling proposition. It is a role that benefits everyone and not just our readers, but has a social impact far, far beyond our circulation and readership reach.

Technological advances can only widen this appeal and reinforce our watchdog role. Regardless, the “bones” will say that we are ready and waiting – and pushing for a transition that will be much swifter than the change from analogue to digital television. Roll-on multipurpose consumer devices, we will be prepared to take advantage. And bring on the threats to press freedom, we – as a global industry - will not be found wanting.

Credit: Trevor Ncube and WAN-IFRA.

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